Secular Oaths

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,” so begins the story. With President Obama’s second inauguration so fresh in the public mind, an article in the Sunday New Jersey Star-Ledger raised the question of using Bibles for taking this secular oath. As A. James Rudin points out, not every president has laid a hand on the Bible to take the oath—John Quincy Adams preferred a law book to do the job. Rudin points out that commentators have started to question the practice of using any religious book for taking a vow for a government position. As I read this article I had to pause for a thought. It was the particular turn of phrase “the Bible, and by implication all other religious writings,” that stopped me at this brain crossing.

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Anyone who has taken time to study the phenomenon of religion seriously (admittedly not a large cohort) has stumbled upon the blue whale in the room: what exactly is religion? We all know, but nobody really knows. Many scientists equate religion with superstition and claim that we are evolving out of it, but we still seem preternaturally powerfully attached to it, if that’s the case. While religious writings have been around for ages, the idea of a sacred book seems to have its origins in the societal reception of the Bible. There are older religious books, but the Bible seems to have defined the category. What’s running rampant in my mind is where the line is drawn between a religious and a secular book. For some, it would seem, Fifty Shades of Grey, or Twilight would fall into that category. Some thinner, more glossy and heavily illustrated literature favored by teenaged boys might also qualify. What makes a book religious?

In current understanding, religion is a matter of belief. Not all religions insist on belief, but in the United States, in any case, it’s not properly religion without it. In our secular society belief is atomized into millions of varieties, even within the same religious family. Step outside the church, synagogue, or mosque, and the sheer varieties of religious experience would make even William James blush. “All other religious writings.” Those might include just about every pen stroke on paper (or electron on whatever it is that I’m typing this into). Those of us who venture to write know that at some level it is a sacred activity. I would swear it with my hand on my dissertation. (At graduation at Nashotah House students are hit on the head with a Bible. Perhaps this might be more appropriate to swearings in?) We lay our hands on that which is sacred, otherwise there’s no vow involved. Whether it be Bible, law book, or saucy literature, we pledge on it because all books are religious, regardless of definition.

Out with the Old

It’s become a time-honored tradition, as an old, secular year ends and a new one, brimming with potential commences, for various pundits to sum up the past twelve months for us. And since there hasn’t been a year without religion since Adam and Eve were created, it stands to reason that the religious year in review is yet another perspective to take on this mid-winter’s day. The New Jersey Star-Ledger, my state’s answer to the New York Times, ran a 2012 top stories in religion feature on Sunday, the one day that anyone might be tempted to pay attention to things spiritual. The list reflects the view of A. James Rudin and it features several stories, most of which tend to show the embarrassing side of belief. Rudin begins his list with an amorphous Islam as reflected at unrest in the Middle East. One of the misfortunes I often deal with in my editorial role is this association of Islam with violence. There are deep roots to the trouble in the Middle East, many of them planted and watered by Christians. Religious extremists, however, are the more sexy side of the story and they always abscond with the headlines.

I should take care with my word choice, however, because yet another of the stories—dominated as they are by Christians—concerns the Catholic Church’s continuing troubles with hiding away child molesters (number five). The number two story, also about Christians, is also about sex as well. That story highlights the chagrin of the Religious Right at the recognition, long overdue, of same-sex marriages in three states. Gender plays a role in story four, the succession of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, but also the related story of how the Church of England still refuses to recognize women as bishops. A deity who can’t see past genitalia should be troubling to any believer. Yet a full quarter of one commentator’s top religious stories are concerned with sex. That’s how the world sees the issue.

The remaining stories Rudin points out have to do with Jewish-Christian relations, aging pontiffs, and the growth of Nones in the US religious marketplace. Anyone who spends time reading contemporary accounts of religion will be familiar with the Nones—that increasing number of people who declare no religious affiliation. Ironically, those involved in such scandals as we often see in the headlines are troubled by the number of people opting out of traditional religions. I almost wrote “opting out of faith” there, but that’s not really the issue. The Nones I know, and there are many, don’t necessarily not have faith. They have lost confidence (if they ever had it) in religious institutions. Interestingly, Rudin concludes his list with the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, along with the death of Sun Myung Moon and a few others. The Newtown tragedy remains the least and most religious event in the past year. And unless those of us who survive do something about it, these dead will have died in vain. Let’s hope 2013 has something better on offer.

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Virtual Religion

Rabbi and author A. James Rudin, in an op-ed piece in Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger, tolls the warning bells for traditional brick-and-mortar religion in the western world. We live in a virtual world where nearly any need may be met through the Internet. You may satisfy your hunger by ordering out online, and consult a virtual nurse online later when you don’t feel so good. Holiday shopping is a breeze without having to do anything more than tap out a wishlist on your keyboard and then click your mouse. Why should spirituality be any different? Rudin points out that many classics of western religion used to be confined in research libraries, but are now freely available online. Any number of self-appointed doyens of spirituality offer the truth in electronic form. What need have the faithful of starting the car on a cold morning, facing bitter winds and blowing snow, to march into a half-deserted house of worship when God is only a few keystrokes away?

There can be no doubt that the Internet has changed views of religion. Exposure to exotic or unfamiliar practices and beliefs is common. American religion has often been compared to a marketplace, and the best place for comparison shopping is online. This is not, however, cause for alarm. Ancient religions, including the early Judaism that will give birth to Christianity, accommodated other belief systems they encountered. There is no pristine form of religion that preserves the exact original recipe. The change took place more slowly in ancient times, but take place it did. Judaism, for example, moved from a basic, colorless Sheol to a fully populated Hell in Christianity, complete with lakes of burning sulfur and trident-wielding demons. These views were not indigenous to Judaism, but after rubbing shoulders with the Magi, such ideas eventually worked their way in.

All that the Internet has done is speed up the process. Without the web, people took longer to encounter and learn about different religions. Some of us took university degrees to figure out as much as we could. Now it requires little effort and minimal time. Like most e-commerce, if you don’t like what you’ve bought somebody else is offering something similar just a server away. What web-culture has done is to hold up a mirror to our bizarre shopping attitude towards religion. We can see in fast-forward what appeared smooth and organic in real-time. Religions change and the methods of selecting religions change as well. My observation is that clergy who take courses in web-casting will be at the front of the class until the next technological revolution comes along.